THE HALL OF NATIONS – A LINGERING MEMORY – Nirmal Kulkarni

One year of demolition - Remembering the iconic Hall of Nations.

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A year has passed since the fateful day when the edifice of architecture itself was brutally returned to dust by the hand of authority. The incident ironically seemed to galvanize together professionals and institutions across India, even if for a brief period of time. In this context “Unpacking Urban History”, “Modern Heritage”, “Smart Cities” and other such terms seem to ring hollow as if spoken inside the Hall of Nations, the empty words ricocheting off the carefully crafted concrete structure opposite the Purana Kila, now but a vague memory. Reflecting upon this cruel judgment I realize that no amount of hate will wash away the hurt (and perhaps shame?) inflicted on the “architectural community”, and especially the students of architecture for whom a valuable entity is lost forever.

Clearly this was an event which brings back painful memories of the fight for the lost cause in which INTACH, IIA and individual professionals at large offered due obeisance, albeit after the tragedy was inevitable. If one were to move away from the anguished throes of self-pity and righteous condemnation, the only way forward would be to consciously resort to a deep soul-searching through a rigorous critical examination of the causes behind this calamity. Firstly there seem to be a plethora of questions which hound me when I start looking introspectively at the profession as a whole, which all boil down to one single question – The government did not find value in the edifice, why? The other more concerning question is – did the architectural community find value in it during its lived-time?

After the demolition of the Hall of Nations buildings and after the actual and metaphorical dust having settled down, it was time to question as to what exactly went wrong. For me, it was impossible to comprehend the answer to this without having gone into the history of the building, beginning from its inception. As an educator, in my view it was important for students of architecture to know about this building and its fate. With this in mind I interviewed Ar. Raj Rewal and Er. Mahendra Raj to know the firsthand account of the intricacies involved in the conceptual and execution phases of the building. (A detailed account of this is being edited and will be made available soon, however a small glimpse is available below)

Excerpt from an interview with Ar. Raj Rewal:

Q – Nirmal Kulkarni – What were the challenges presented in the design of building a space-frame in RCC, especially in view of the technological innovation which it sought to be?

A – Raj Rewal – This was an architectural competition and the client wanted a permanent exhibition complex. It had to be a unique design signifying the 25th year of our Independence and this was emphasized by Ms Pupul Jaykar and Mr. Rama Dorai. In those days we had very limited means, nothing could be imported, so the design was envisaged within those constraints. So we thought that why not build an extremely large span structure, (the brief also required that even an Air force aircraft could be housed) which we can be proud of. The design of lattice structures or jalis and the triangular geometry has its base in ancient Indian past in the yantras, later on also explored by the Mughals, and we picked up that motif.

I had worked in Paris on steel space frame structures. I thought to myself as a young architect that since the Indian sun is so strong why not design a structure where the roof and wall is one seamless surface of sun-breakers. So the idea was that whole structure, because of its large span (256’X256’) had to be designed to be 16’ deep and that acted as a sun-breaker. In Chandigarh, Le Corbusier’s buildings have sun-breakers on the outside as a separate element, but here I integrated the structure and the function of the sun-breaker into one element. I think this was a major achievement which a French architect mentioned in his book.

In terms of materials, we began thinking about steel but since steel of that much quantity was not available in the country, I had to think of concrete. I had seen Nervi’s trusses which were built in concrete, so if that could be made in concrete, why not a space frame? The idea took roots. And we were very lucky to have Er. Mahendra Raj on board and him, along with Er. Dorai Raj who was the head of the pre-fabrication factory, took on the challenge of engineering our design. So this was our team. But the real challenge was that the structure had to be put up in a period of 18 months flat, and we achieved it.

Excerpt from an interview with Er. Mahendra Raj:

Q – Nirmal Kulkarni – What were the challenges presented in the design of building a space-frame in RCC, especially in view of the technological innovation which it sought to be?

A – Er Mahendra Raj – I had a previous experience of having worked on large span structures in a New York engineering firm. So the scheme of construction we worked out was basically a pyramid with a double layered space-frame. In this, every individual member had to be of the same size in terms of its geometry. So all four sides had to be the same in plan and the diagonals too, and this is possible only in a certain specific angle that gave us the shape. These pyramidal units which formed the module were then placed next to each other and the whole assembly multiplied to form the full structure.

Regarding materials, since steel members were not available I designed the structure in pre-cast concrete members and it was put to tender. However no contractor was willing to undertake the project because pre-casting required a certain level of accuracy and precision which they were not capable of. So there was no choice but to go in for a cast-in-situ construction and the lowest tenderer Puri Construction was awarded the project. We had to then rework the entire design to suit concrete pouring with shuttering and bars already in place. The joints which were so elaborately worked out for pre-cast concrete also had to undergo a change and there were places where as many as 9 members met, so you can imagine the complexity and we had a very tough time handling these at all levels.

Sifting through the distant time-zone of the construction process of the Hall of Nations through the memories of the creators was exciting, informative and humbling at the same time. The layered nuances of design stage, the frightening challenges of the constrained resources of materials and time and the heroic abandon with which the two of them engaged with the making of history for the 25th year of the Independence of India was to me nationalism embodied.

In June 2017, I was invited to present a key-note lecture at Gwalior for the Zonal NASA. I took this as an opportunity to inform students through my lecture which revolved around the Hall of Nations and concentrated on several aspects of the conceptual design phases through to the building process to the demolition and invited the students to subject the building and the event to critical analysis.

 

My consistent engagement with the event goaded me to understand more deeply the issues underlying such events through the insight of other fellow professionals which led me to organize a conference which I curated & moderated at Vagamon, Kerala, through NASA and is the first of such events which will hopefully find continuity in the future.

Event name – ARCHITECTURE – Challenges & Opportunities

A panel discussion was held at the annual NASA event in Kochi on 31st January 2018.
The idea was to first have a closed-door conference workshop among a small group of architects, followed by an open panel discussion. The intent was to look at the challenges the profession of Architecture has faced recently. Right from the Amravati competition debacle to the Hall of Nations demolition, the connections with the people in power and the people at large are somehow missing. This is an effort to try and create these bridges which will benefit the large number of fraternity of young architects who are waiting to take the plunge into the real world.

The workshop culminated in a panel discussion which the students attended. At this kick-start session we had come to some worthwhile thinking points which can lead further discussions over a period of time. Eventually, this will have to build into a larger movement over several such conferences in various parts of the country to mobilize support which can initiate appropriate action.

(The National Association of Students of Architecture – NASA facilitated Ar Nirmal Kulkarni be the knowledge partner for this event via Investigating Design-INDES and provided the platform. The event is expected to reach out to thousands of students because of the venue. INDES also intends to serve as a continuity platform to keep the conversations going beyond this venue until appropriate action is initiated.) 

The Hall of Nations

Questions which were discussed at the conference are listed below:

What were the loopholes because of which the Hall of Nations got legal sanction for demolition? Should the HoN be rebuilt? What defines good architecture and there any empirical measures which can be stated? What are the perceptions and implications of the term ‘Heritage’? Can policy be enacted to earmark public buildings for posterity, even during its ‘just executed’ stage?

Following are excerpts from the conference opined by the participants in their own words, a full account of which shall be made available later:

Prasad Shetty – Architect & educator, Mumbai

That there is a problem with what happened to the Hall of Nations or to the other competitions is an agreed argument. It is also true that there are several levels of interests that are at play here.  The values important to the ‘architectural discipline and profession’ are at stake and this is a crisis. One could contend that this is a temporary condition (like all conditions) and when the economy changes (and it will change, where culture will play an important part), architecture may gain importance. However, we need our institutions, schools and practices to be aware of such shifts and prepare themselves. 

At the moment, an ecosystem approach would be most useful where interested practitioners and institutions may act as catalysts to generate influence-nodes (like the Chennai Architecture Forum) to create an interest and provide space for critical thinking. Such practitioners and institutions may then network to create a countrywide effect, which may manifest itself into a singular voice whenever required. So the next activity should be to identify, promote and help nourish such practices and institutions that have a capacity of turning into influence-nodes. 

Kunjan Garg – Architect, Kochi

Hall of Nations was innovative in a universal sense, in that it tackled a given program with a language and with technology that surpassed its time. In that sense it is still relevant today. But like all architecture, it too had to respond to the “use-value”, which the structure of the ever changing society and the resultant patronage judged differently.

‘Our community’ can still comprehend the universal value. A possible question is that, if (hypothetically) we were able to get a stay on its demolition, would we not have been compliant with a proposal of another competition? Maybe the building would have been re-used in another user friendly configuration, or there would have been a proposal of demolition under a scheme that was truly a ‘public’ space.

Biju Kuriakose, Architecture Red, Practitioner, Chennai.

The way forward is to really connect with the general public. In the world we live in today, everything is value engineered. The environment we aspire to have will have to connect with people either economically or emotionally. Our challenge is really the latter which is also the intangible. This can be achieved only by engaging with people. We need to create initiatives that promote this engagement. These initiatives have to be more bottom-up and localized. As we discussed in the meeting if we can all put together a small group in each of our respective cities and try and get more like minded people together and start initiatives that engages with the larger public, it will surely create more awareness. 

Prem Chandawarkar, CNT , Practitioner & Educator, Bengaluru.

Architects in India have not been able to respond effectively to recent events that have negatively impacted the public standing of the profession. Established institutions, such as Indian Institute of Architects and Council of Architecture, have not developed the internal capacities to offer effective response. Individual voices or small groups make little difference for larger numbers are needed to muster the weight needed to achieve change. However, larger numbers by themselves are not sufficient: it is also necessary to ensure that the quality of response is rigorous, critical and clear. This will be difficult to achieve immediately for a critical culture of architecture has not taken root within the profession in India.

Everything is not lost: there are many architects in the country who do possess a critical sensibility that finds its way into qualitatively high expression in practice or theoretical research. But they operate largely as individual voices who do not resonate with each other at a scale that can make a difference. The challenge of achieving that resonance is what this proposal is aimed at. The effort is unlikely to go far if it requires large investment in institution building. To be effective, it must adopt guerilla tactics, seed its way into existing institutional arrangements, and spread a critical culture through viral appeal. The proposal is titled – AMBASSADORS OF EXCELLENCE:

A PROPOSAL FOR MOVING TOWARD A CRITICAL CULTURE OF ARCHITECTURE. (The details of this proposal will be published separately.)

Arunav Dasgupta, School of Planning and Architecture, Educator, New Delhi.

If we go the path where we join hands with the developer of what to keep and what not to keep, it is a path which will take some time. During that path many more such episodes like the demolition of the Hall of Nations will happen and one will have to figure out what next. Where is the axe going to fall the next time? If we go the faster route, it will be subjective not objective. This is based on this idea of collective association. I associate with this particular period, I don’t know whether I’m liking it because of the structure or its beauty or its inherent things, whatever it stands for, I’m associated with it through memory in some way or with my participation in some way or technology know-how, but I’m simply associated with it. For instance, let’s say I’m associated with the Benaras Ghats, and millions of people are associated with it. Tomorrow if somebody wants to do something with the Ghats, there will be millions of people who’ll be against it.

So if I have this idea of collective association, and create a framework of making at least architecture students and institutions of good caliber disciplines say that this is an object of collective association. And all of us agree to it and that all of us stand for it. It represents 1000s of academics and lakhs of students of architecture, it represents the entire profession of architects, designers and this is a building of “us”. Then the resonance would be entirely different.

During the one-day conference workshop the discussions meandered from the romantic to the pragmatic, from the idealistic to the realistic, all hues freely interspersed with each other to make the debate lively, vibrant and meaningful. The conversation intended to deal with issues in a comprehensive manner and to a large extent we began to have a general idea of the position, which is becoming evident in the comments given above. The conference did not deal with only identifying the problems, but it also opened up doors towards meaningful and sustainable solutions. The participant architects are people who, because of their vast experience and deep insight, were able to provide a pragmatic perspective, and were able to articulate their thinking in a seemingly theoretical framework. These perceptions were fuelled by the freedom, afforded by the thought provoking atmosphere and spurred by the inspiration of belonging to the same professional milieu and being in the same boat at the same time.

The aim of this exercise is to create over time, a substantial collection of ideas which becomes a compendium of documentation organized subject-wise. As expressed by many here, one needs to push the Government into enacting policy to conserve what is legitimate, rebuild what can be, and create new institutions to assure a culturally strong and sustainable diversity. Also of importance here is whether we can formulate an empirical enough matrix to evaluate projects in the future so that no mistake can be made in identifying a building of National importance which can then be listed as protected.

In the ensuing din of the outcry from professionals within India and across the world, what seemed to be losing perspective was the extolling of values which the built form of the Hall of Nations embodied and this nurturing of values is what needs to be aimed at in a focused manner. Ironically, and in retrospect, it seems to me that this was one building which, over its lived history of 45 years, underwent the complete cosmic process of Creation, Preservation and Destruction, a philosophy of the cosmic order which is embedded in Indian thought.


NIRMAL KULKARNINirmal Kulkarni is the founding principal of the firm AUM Architects which is a collaborative design practice now based in Gurugram, NCR, New Delhi, INDIA. Design engagement largely centers on institutional facilities, corporate offices, retail spaces & private residences. As a practicing architect, he has the ability to traverse the boundaries between education and the practice of architecture and design. He says – “We at AUM believe in addressing & evolving new design paradigms. We want to be an integral part of ‘Design for Communities’ and therefore strive to address the needs of people in a sort of “open source” approach to life. Read more about him HERE.

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1 Comment
  1. interiordesigner says

    thanks for such wonderful information..

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